State and federal governing officials have placed a hold on the lending of travel trailers to displaced residents until the Centers for Disease Control can test the units for elevated levels of formaldehyde - extending the wait for Miami flood victims hoping for temporary housing.
On Friday, Albert Ashwood, Gov. Brad Henry's authorized representative of the state Department of Emergency Management, sent a letter to the Federal Environmental Management Agency advising its federal coordinating officer to have the federal Environmental Protection Agency immediately test formaldehyde levels in travel trailers delivered to Ottawa County.
The request is a direct response to reports from Washington, D.C., of health issues potentially attributed to the trailers.
Miami Mayor Brent Brassfield expressed his frustrations Friday.
“That is about the last thing we want to hear, Brassfield said. “I did have an awareness of this potential problem, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency assured me that this was not an issue.
Miami city officials were notified Friday by Fred Liebee, deputy director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, of the embargo on the 40 FEMA trailers hauled into town this week.
“There is no solution at this moment, said Michelann Ooten, public relations director for the state emergency management office. “Everyone is working as hard and as fast as they can to find a solution to this problem. Our number one concern is the safety of the citizens and what can be done to help the people in Miami who are depending on these trailers.
The problem brings Miami's problems to a new level, according to city officials who said that the community already has a housing deficit and does not have the infrastructure in place to bring in FEMA's alternative housing source - larger modular trailers.
“I emphasized strongly to Fred (Liebee) that we are in one heck of a dilemma here because we have people expecting housing, Brassfield said “What are we going to do with these people if we don't have anything to offer them?
Miami officials were advised of the potential problem with toxic levels of formaldehyde on July 11 when the News-Record presented a July 2006 national news report of a class-action lawsuit filed in Louisiana, naming the federal government and trailer manufacturers as defendants and alleging that “the temporary housing is unsafe and presents a clear and present danger to the health and well-being of plaintiffs and their families.
At that time, Brassfield and Miami City Manager Michael Spurgeon began to inquire about the formaldehyde and were assured by FEMA officials that it was not an issue.
Representatives of Congressman Dan Boren's office, who were also questioned about environmental concerns within the trailers, said they had spent the previous week trying to gather information about the trailers - specifically, the trailers that had been directed to Miami.
“My offices remain available to help citizens with FEMA assistance registry. I also have been watching the discussion on FEMA trailers closely, and we must make certain that people are not placed in temporary housing that is harmful to their health, Boren said. “I am pleased that FEMA has requested the Centers for Disease Control investigate this issue nationally, and I support the state's request to test trailers that have been sent to Ottawa County. That being said, this should be done in a very timely fashion so those in need of temporary housing can be provided safe and reliable assistance as soon as possible.
Bill Plumlee, a regional public information officer for FEMA, has directed all trailer-related inquiries to the agency's Web site and to FEMA's national and state news desks.
FEMA's state-level public information officers directed inquiries regarding the trailers to the national headquarters.
“Reinforcing FEMA's commitment to the public, earlier this week I was troubled to learn that some FEMA employees may have not acted with the speed and sensitivity I expect in addressing the concerns raised by some victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, wrote FEMA administrator R. David Paulison in an online statement. “I will deal with these issues swiftly. FEMA's first priority is the health and welfare of disaster victims we serve. Anything less is totally unacceptable.
What will FEMA do?
FEMA officials announced Friday that the agency has taken steps to address the formaldehyde concerns and will work more closely with residents who may have concerns about exposure.
Measures outlined in a FEMA statement issued Friday include:
Testing - Pursuant to a plan under development for several weeks, health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Health Affairs will conduct a preliminary field study that will test air quality conditions in FEMA-purchased housing units under real-life conditions. Testing will begin Tuesday in the gulf states.
Aaron Walker, FEMA press secretary in Washington, D.C., could not confirm when testing would begin in Miami.
“That is yet to be decided, Walker said. “What we are doing right now is trying to identify the extent of the problem. We are working with the CDC and EPA and planning short- and long-term sampling.
Walker said testing will begin Tuesday in Louisiana and Mississippi to determine the scope of the problem and then the short- and long-term testing is expected to begin two to threeweeks later. “We are not just testing for formaldehyde, we are testing for any airborne bacteria that might be contributing to this problem.
FEMA officials said the agency is aware of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management's request for testing in Miami
“We have been in contact with Oklahoma State Emergency Management folks and we are aware of the request that they would like the units tested prior to being provided to residents.
Finding a quick-fix' - The CDC team is currently reviewing known research in order to provide FEMA with advice about the safety of environmental conditions in travel trailers. The agency is also looking into engineering solutions that may be available to remove environmental pollutants from the trailers.
Fact sheets - As of Saturday, FEMA is distributing a formaldehyde and housing fact sheet to the occupants of each FEMA travel trailer and mobile home in the four gulf states. Currently, 64,805 households occupy these units in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. An estimated 97 percent of the units are located in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The fact sheet will provide basic information about formaldehyde, its possible medical effects and contacts for further assistance.
Similar information was provided to residents of all FEMA trailers in the gulf coast region last year. It will also be available to Miami residents as early as Monday, according to FEMA officials.
The new brochure is also available at www.fema.gov.
Toll-free information -FEMA has opened a toll-free telephone line to serve residents of its travel trailers and mobile homes in the gulf states. Operators from CDC and FEMA will be available to answer questions about the formaldehyde-related issues and associated FEMA housing concerns.
The toll-free number is 1-866-562-2381 (TTY 1-800-462-7585).
Health resources - The Department of Human Services chief medical officer will contact state health officials in the region to share information about FEMA's communications with occupants of FEMA trailers and mobile homes.